Commentary: Leaky Washington DC

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The nomination of John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court came as a surprise to, of all people, most of the Washington press corps. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer says the nature of the surprise should not be surprising.

BRIAN LEHRER: On a day when Washington was obsessed with who leaked the name of a CIA agent to influence the press, someone in Washington apparently leaked the name of the wrong Supreme court nominee to influence the press. Around midday on Tuesday, most of the media began reporting that judge Edith Clement was said to be the nominee who would be announced that night. Now we know better.

So the political dance over the Roberts nomination began with a deception – by whom is not exactly clear. And given the determination of most national journalists to protect their sources, we may NEVER know – unless of course, Time Magazine finds it to be in their corporate interest to give up a reporter’s notes as they did in the Valerie Plame case.

As in that case, this is not a victimless leak. Though Judge Clement was not exactly a CIA agent who had her classified status blown, all her critics were still able to get their public licks in about her through a half day’s news cycle for all the world to see, for no reason. She was used by someone as a decoy. And now she must live with being most famous in her life for being that woman who was NOT nominated to the supreme court.

But why did the leaker in this case bother? What was to be gained by delaying scrutiny of John Roberts for just one day?

My theory is that it has to do with the importance of first impressions – that the administration wanted the country’s first impression of Roberts to be made by the president, and by Roberts himself, rather than other people talking about Roberts.

It’s a small deal, but BEACUSE it’s a small deal, it does also indicate just how far people in Washington will go to influence public opinion, including through the use of deception, to gain even minor advantage.

And therefore, it refers right back to the story the White House knocked off the front page with this nomination: the CIA leak.

Think about it: The purpose of that leak was to manufacture doubt about the credibility of Joe Wilson ever so slightly by revealing that his wife recommended him for the job to check out the Saddam Hussein African uranium connection for the CIA.

Did that refute the content of his findings that Saddam had made no serious attempt to obtain uranium from Niger? No, but in some vague way, the hint of nepotism was supposed to raise doubts in the public’s mind about Wilson, therefore reinforcing the perception that Saddam did have nuclear weapons.

For that small a gain, someone wound up inflicting a lot of pain.

That’s how Washington works on all kinds of issues. The public would be well-advised to understand that when getting your news. What makes the CIA leak story special is simply that in this case, the deceivers got caught.